Birding by Zipline
We’re still pleased with our technological prowess as we cross a footbridge—pausing to admire a phoebe hawking for insects over Mill Creek—and unclip from the cables for a short hike through the woods. After passing a wood thrush we reach the next platform: a large, flat piece of sandstone overlooking a small ravine. This zip is the longest of the course—730 feet—and starts by launching off a rock lodged in the ground. Reed goes first and reports over the radio: “It’s birdy over here.” Now Linda gets a running jump, pulls her legs up to get optimal speed, and shouts “Bombs away!” as she disappears into the trees, binoculars slung over her shoulder.
The four-foot-diameter hemlock on the other end of the cable towers above us. It was already 300 years old when Daniel Boone surveyed the area in the late 1700s, when this was still Virginia. There’s a good chance Washington passed it on his way to survey lands along the Kanawha and Ohio rivers. “Fast-forward to the Civil War,” Tiny tells us. “Two future U.S. presidents fought in this part of Fayette County. Robert E. Lee came—”
“Scarlet tanager!” Linda interjects. “Nobody saw it? It’s red!”
Kara’s skeptical. “Sure, it’s a scarlet tanager…” she says.
As soon as Reed zips to the next platform, something brown streaks from one bush to another—a Swainson’s warbler. The four of us shuffle around the platform angling for another glimpse. “There’s a Swainson’s over here, too,” Reed reports over the radio. “It’s on a rock by the creek getting a drink.” Uh-huh, we think, and spend another 10 minutes studying the rhododendrons before we give up.
“No, he was really here!” Reed protests when we finally reach him. At 85 feet, this is the highest platform on the course. “He was out in the open along the edge of the creek, walking with his feet in the water all nonchalantly. It was crazy.” As he’s talking, there’s another brown streak, but it happens so fast I don’t even register what I’m seeing before it’s gone.
We peruse the mountain and Fraser magnolias on the other side of the creek, then train our binoculars on the dense understory. It’s cooler here in the valley, where it’s heavily shaded. The shade promotes the rhododendron growth, which provides key habitat for the Swainson’s warbler. Tiny settles onto a branch that’s reaching out above the platform like a seat; somewhere above our heads is a parula nest. “If you lose the hemlocks, you’re going to start losing the rhododendrons,” he says. “And if you lose them, you’re going to lose the Swainson’s.”
“And trout and chub,” Reed adds. After all, everything in this unbroken forest is connected. The canopy cools the water, too.
We turn our binoculars skyward and, silhouetted in the very top of a hemlock, spy a yellow-tinged northern parula.
Then, walking across one last footbridge, we notice a rustle in the brush. The sunlight is shining directly into the pockets of open ground. We crouch down on the 150-foot span and train our binoculars in that direction. After a few minutes, a drab brown bird creeps out of the shadows, flipping over leaves as it passes through the pool of light—its white eye stripe clear even without magnification. At last: the Swainson’s warbler. We’re ecstatic. The final zip is 640 feet, low and fast over Mill Creek. This time we really fly.